Synchrotron peers into worms for toxic clean-up

With the Large Hadron Collider dominating technology news headlines this week, perhaps it’s time for a glance at a much pokier particle accelerator, the synchrotron.

In particular, the relationship between this gigantic scientific machine and the worm.

A synchrotron, which basically functions as an incredibly strong microscope, sends very intense beams of x-rays and ultraviolet light to study materials at the molecular and even atomic levels. The rays from a synchrotron can be a million times more intense than a hospital x-ray machine, and they’re key to shedding light on the basic structure of matter.

At the frontiers of environmental remediation research is a collection of scientists using particle accelerators to learn about the most minute details of the environments they’re hoping to clean up, and in some cases the tools they expect to use to do so. Using a synchrotron named Diamond Light Source, Dr. Mark Hodson, of the University of Reading, has been studying earthworm tissue, excreted soil, and more, to discern the effect that earthworms have on the environments that they burrow through. On his mind is the question of why certain earthworms can exist in toxically contaminated soil while others can’t.

What he’s found is that some earthworm populations appear to be evolving metal tolerance. Now he’s studying how the metal-tolerant earthworms handle the metals to see if giant quantities of the worms could be used in soil clean-up operations. Earthworms eat about 30 times their body weight each day, and when munching through soil contaminated with lead, arsenic, and copper, their digestive processes secrete the metals in a form that plants can then take up, the Financial Times reports. To remove the residual metals, people can later come in and remove the plants.